Interview with Aki Kanerva (Virtual Air Guitar)

I had the lovely opportunity to do an interview with Aki Kanerva from Virtual Air Guitar, known for Xbox One games Squid Hero and Boom Ball for Kinect. 

Dae Jim: Hi Aki, thanks for your time for Let's immediately set the mood, I had a few talks with disappointed indie-developers that sales haven't been that great on Xbox One or PS4. Especially for your two games, both Kinect games it isn't easy to make them sell I guess? Anything you could share about that?

Aki:  That’s a complex issue. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that anyone can make games. On the other hand, when everyone is making games, it’s difficult to stand out. Thankfully we’re still far from the chaotic insanity of the mobile games world, but still, marketing is important. Indie studios don’t have big budgets for games, and they don’t usually have big budgets for marketing either. Combine that with someone who’s devoted years of their life to release their first-ever game, any potential disappointment is going to be pretty big.

In our case, doing Kinect-only games does have the benefit that there isn’t much competition. So when people are already looking for Kinect games, they’ll find us there. The real challenge lies in spreading the word to the much larger group of players who might like Kinect games if they tried one out – and the ones who have tried one Kinect game ages ago and didn’t like it.

Happily, things have improved in the media considerably in the past 2-3 years. The overall hostility towards Kinect has all but disappeared, and many reviewers understand Kinect games these days instead of just bashing them on general principles. There are even a few sites devoted solely to motion games.

Whatever else though, we’re in full control over our games. We’d rather not have yet another publisher go bankrupt from under us.

So yeah, we can’t afford to take on huge projects right now. We have to keep making games quickly to stay alive. Therefore, we try to do the best we can within the limits and focus on what’s the most fun about each game.

Dae Jim: I wrote a review about your two Kinect games, 3.5/5 for Boom Ball for Kinect on my Dutch website and 79% for Squid hero on LifeisXbox. Recently Virtual Air Guitar announced a bundle with these two games for only $15, crazy value if you ask me! I know questions like these are annoying but you have to pick one, yes only one! What game is your favorite from those two? (And no, saying Ill buy the bundle doesn't count!)

Aki:  I don’t think I’m qualified to compare the games in any sensible manner, but Boom Ball will always have a special meaning to me, because it was our first Xbox One game. It was a leap into the unknown with ID@Xbox, and that’s a thing that sticks with you.

Dae Jim: Prefer Boom Ball too but both are pretty fun Kinect games. Feel free to say otherwise but Virtual Air Guitar is mostly known by Xbox gamers for Kung-Fu High Impact on Xbox 360, it received mixed reviews but has a pretty strong fanbase, especially for a Kinect game. I won't ask the "when is a new one coming for Xbox One" question but I'm more interested behind the technology, the patented FreeMotion® Was that a successful thing and is it still being used for Boom Ball or Squid Hero?

Aki: FreeMotion was originally developed for the PS3 game Kung-Fu LIVE. Unlike Kinect, the PlayStation Eye wasn’t a 3D depth camera. So we had our own cutting-edge technology that made it possible to do background removal, aka “green-screening” in real time without the need for an actual green screen. It also included skeleton tracking, which is to say that we were able to tell which bits of the player were the head, hands and feet, in order to separate punches and kicks (and headbutts).

On Kinect, background removal is a much simpler task. Thanks to the depth data, it knows which parts of the picture are further away than the user standing in the middle, so those parts can easily be removed. And Microsoft provides their own skeleton tracking system as well, so there’s no need for us to do that.

We never intended to be purely a middleware company anyway. We always wanted to develop both technology and games that use it, because then you have that wonderful feedback loop where both sides keep improving the other one.

With Kinect, we no longer need to do that low-level stuff. However, we have accumulated a lot of experience on what things work really well, and how to compensate for the limitations or design around them.

Having said that, there are still places where you don’t have access to a depth camera like Kinect. These lie outside the console world, but FreeMotion is still a valid technology for them.

Dae Jim: I know you guys swear by motion games but have you ever had game concepts for controller games?

Aki:  Definitely. There’s all kinds of stuff gathering dust on our shelves. But doing a game without motion control would be abandoning the one thing we’re particularly good at. It would have to be a really, really unique concept to justify that. Or maybe something that combines both controller and camera features.

Dae Jim: What's your opinion about the recent announcements from ID@Xbox, for example Game Preview? Would a motion game make sense for the function? I can imagine that gamers testing an unfinished game has it's benefits but also some negative sides.

Aki: Well, first off, Game Preview makes more sense for games that take longer than a few months to develop.

I think Game Preview works best for certain kinds of games with a big scope, unpredictable open-ended gameplay, infinite restarts, content that can be accessed at any point, and lots of rules that need polishing for balance. Survival games fall neatly into this category, as do some games in the strategy and role-playing genres. When we work on motion games, we do things the other way around: the gameplay is the most important thing, so that’s what we start with. It’s an iterative process where things don’t feel great until suddenly everything clicks together. So I don’t see Game Preview being useful for those early stages. But if we were to develop a game with any of the elements I mentioned, I’d definitely consider Game Preview. It could also make sense for a nonlinear, competitive multiplayer game, like sports, where you have the core set up but you’re still adding new features like special game modes and leaderboards.

Dae Jim: Not much competition on Xbox One for Kinect games. You have MADEapps Slice Zombies and recently Commander Cherry that are out now, to name a few. And Crabitron and FRU coming up in the future do you play them and spend more attention on them because they swim in your water?

Aki: You’re right, the puddle is a bit small so far, but from our perspective, more Kinect games is only a good thing. We stay up to date with what’s happening in general, but we’re definitely not in any kind of cutthroat competition. Personally, I don’t actively play a lot of Kinect games outside of research for work purposes. It’s the same as with all game design: if you spend both your work hours and your free hours on the same kinds of games, you’ll get tunnel vision and end up focusing only on the details.

Dae Jim:  Serious fun for people who don't take themselves too seriously is a tagline from Virtual Air Guitar. Personally love that quote who came up with that?

Aki: Hah, thanks! I like it a lot too. I wish I could attribute it to someone, but the boring truth is that it was born during a brainstorm for our website back in the day. Everyone had their say, and I think we went through multiple variations until we ended up with that particular one.


Dae Jim: Thanks for your time and good luck with your future game projects!

Aki: Thanks for having me, and I hope to be able to reveal cool stuff in the future!

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